NFC East: Ben Roethlisberger

IRVING, Texas -- When it comes to ranking quarterbacks, the debates can be endless and sometimes pointless, but Mike Sando took the question to people inside the NFL with his latest ESPN Insider piece. Insider

Romo
It might surprise some of you that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo finished tied for eighth in the tier-rankings of 26 general managers, former GMs, pro personnel people, coordinators, head coaches, position coaches and an executive.

Four players tied for the top spot in Sando’s rankings, using a 1 for the best at the position and a 5 for the worst. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees shared the top spot. Andrew Luck was fifth.

Romo checked in after Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger and tied with Russell Wilson and Eli Manning in the second tier.

Here’s what Sando wrote and the insiders had to say about Romo:
T-8. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys (2.23 average rating)

A few evaluators questioned whether Romo had the mind-set to play at the highest level consistently. It's a familiar refrain in league circles, a feeling that Romo is an undisciplined QB playing for an undisciplined organization with a poorly constructed roster.

"People want to knock him," one GM responded, "but the guy has talent and is one of the top 10 starters in the league."

Romo is 34 years old and coming off back surgery, but he still could be in line for a "monster" season, one evaluator said. "But I absolutely believe they will not win big with him. As soon as he decides it's a clutch moment, his brain goes elsewhere. He loses focus and tries to create something."




What’s funny is that the GM and evaluator have the same thoughts of those who love Romo or loathe Romo who are not on the inside. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports went so far as to call Romo “underrated” in his yearly rankings, which drew the ire of some.

The “clutch” talk has been a big thing around Romo since the bobbled snap in 2006 against the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs. That talk is always followed up with Romo having the best fourth-quarter passer rating in NFL history (102.4) and his 20 come-from-behind wins.

Those numbers aren’t hollow, although with one playoff win to his credit that’s what his detractors will say.

That’s why this debate is a good one. Both sides can declare victory with their points. If Romo were to ever win a Super Bowl -- or perhaps just get to one -- then the perception would change entirely.
IRVING, Texas -- Since joining the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent, Brandon Weeden is sure he has started to annoy Tony Romo -- in a good way -- with all the questions he is asking.

Romo
Weeden
"But I'm just trying to get a feel for what he thinks, why he does certain things," Weeden said. "He's an extremely successful quarterback and a very smart guy. I'd be crazy not to take everything I can from him."

But Weeden also realizes he can't take everything from Romo and implement it into his own game. They play the same position but they play it differently.

"He's done it for so long that he's found what works for him, whether it's footwork or types of throws or reads or whatever it may be," Weeden said. "He's got a feel for what he's good at. I just pick and choose what I think may work for me. One thing about me, I'm going to be an aggressive thrower. I'm going to stretch the field vertically and I'm going to throw the ball aggressively. Sometimes I may get myself in trouble but I think being smart aggressive vs. being dumb aggressive is two different things.

"I've watched every game of his last year and I think what he does in the pocket, moving around the pocket, those things you really can't teach them, so I'm not sitting back there trying to do those spin moves and crazy stuff he does. But he's one of the best. Him and Ben Roethlisberger are the best I've ever seen at extending plays. That's not really my skill set. That's something I'm not going to take from him."

Weeden is getting to work with the first team during the organized team activities because Romo is recovering from back surgery and Kyle Orton is absent. He views this as an audition to show the coaches he can be the backup if needed.

Orton's status remains unsolved, but the club anticipates he will take part in the June 17-19 mandatory minicamp.

"That was one of things I talked to coach Garrett about when I came in before I signed," Weeden said. "I said, ‘I want an opportunity to come in and compete and get some reps and show that I can play.' He assured me that I was going to. So coming in Day 1, I think it's kind of what I expected. I think it's my job now to take advantage of each rep, especially going with the ones. I'm out there with guys who are perennial Pro Bowlers like Jason Witten and Dez (Bryant) and all these guys who are just the best at what they do. It's made it nice. It's been a good transition. Tony has been helping me a lot. It's been good for the first four days."
Last week I broke down the Redskins' salary cap by position and how it compared to the rest of the NFL. This is one more extension of that so you can see how the Redskins' top cap hit compares to the five biggest cap hits at each position. For the most part, the Redskins have more bargains offensively in part because they've found younger contributors through the draft or they landed players such as DeSean Jackson after they'd been cut, thereby lowering their price. The Redskins have only one player who will count among the top five at their position in 2014 -- left tackle Trent Williams.

Quarterback

NFL's top five cap hits

Eli Manning, New York Giants, $20,400,000

Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh, $18,895,000

Jay Cutler, Chicago, $18,500,000

Drew Brees, New Orleans, $18,400,000

Sam Bradford, St. Louis, $17,610,000

Redskins top cap hit

Griffin
Robert Griffin III $5,759,754 (19th overall)

Summing it up: St. Louis is paying the price for a since-changed system when it comes to rookie contracts -- and the Redskins clearly have benefited. There’s little chance anyone would think Bradford is worth as much as his 2014 cap number. Manning has regressed the past two seasons, for whatever reason, and needed ankle surgery this offseason. Roethlisberger is excellent and Brees remains a top-five quarterback. But Cutler is an example of a guy who is being paid because of the position he plays. He's been a good quarterback, but it's tough to say he's been great. He's definitely not a top-five guy. The Redskins have Griffin at a lower cost the next two seasons and then, if he plays as they hope, his number will skyrocket.

Receiver

NFL's top five cap hits

Mike Wallace, Miami, $17,250,000

Andre Johnson, Houston, $15,644,583

Percy Harvin, Seattle, $13,400,000

Calvin Johnson, Detroit, $13,058,000

Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay, $12,432,000

Redskins top cap hit

Garcon
Garcon
Pierre Garcon $9,700,000 (seventh overall)

Summing it up: The top two at this position certainly didn't outperform Garcon, who led the NFL with 113 catches. Garcon only caught five touchdown passes, but that matches what Wallace and Andre Johnson did as well. Harvin played just 19 snaps all season. Calvin Johnson caught 84 passes, but 12 went for touchdowns and he averaged 17.8 yards per catch. Jackson caught 78 passes, seven for scores, and averaged 15.7 yards per catch. The Redskins received good value from their top earner at this spot. They have even more invested here now after adding DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts. The former will be a major bargain compared to the rest of this group if he puts up numbers similar to last year (82 catches, nine touchdowns, 1,332 yards. But keep in mind in his first five years Jackson averaged 54.8 catches, 4.6 touchdowns and 957 yards per season).

Running back

NFL's top five cap hits

Adrian Peterson, Minnesota, $14,400,000

LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia, $9,700,000

Ray Rice, Baltimore, $8,750,000

Arian Foster, Houston, $8,300,000

Matt Forte, Chicago, $7,900,000

Redskins top cap hit

Helu
Roy Helu $1,548,563 (38th overall)

Summing it up: Peterson and McCoy are two of the most dangerous offensive players in the NFL and are difference-makers. But what's also clear is why teams don't like to shell out huge money for running backs. Washington’s Alfred Morris, who is 93rd on the list of running backs when it comes to 2014 cap figures ($600,775), was as productive running the ball as Peterson. Morris ran for 1,275 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 4.6 yards a carry. Peterson rushed for 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per rush. Rice ran for 660 yards in 15 games, averaging 3.1 yards on 214 carries. Foster only played in eight games. Forte is an excellent all-around back and was productive. But the Redskins are fortunate they won’t have to shell out more money here for two more years.

Offensive line

NFL's top five cap hits

LT Joe Thomas, Cleveland, $12,300,000

LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, New York Jets, $11,698,666

LT Russell Okung, Seattle, $11,240,000

G Jahri Evans, New Orleans, $11,000,000

LT Trent Williams, Washington, $10,980,393

Redskins top cap hit

Britt
Williams
Williams

Summing it up: Williams is one of the games best tackles so for him to be in this group makes sense. He could be more consistent and avoid the clunker game, but overall Williams has proven himself and earned two Pro Bowl trips. I'd have a hard time paying a guard as much as Evans, but at least he's an elite player with five consecutive All-Pro nods (in addition to five straight Pro Bowl berths). Okung, drafted one spot after Williams in 2010, has missed 19 games in his career and made one Pro Bowl team. Williams has played in every game the past two seasons. Because of his athleticism, the Redskins can use him differently than other teams use their tackles.

Tight end

NFL's top five cap hits

Jason Witten, Dallas, $8,412,000

Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville, $8,250,000

Greg Olsen, Carolina, $7,800,000

Antonio Gates, San Diego, $7,362,500

Vernon Davis, San Francisco, $7,342,916

Redskins top cap hit

Paulsen
Logan Paulsen $2,236,666 (21st overall)

Summing it up: Yet another position where the Redskins have a bargain for a few more seasons. This isn’t about how Paulsen stacks up, but really about Jordan Reed. If he can stay healthy, this will be the company he keeps statistically. I love watching Davis because of the matchup headaches he causes based on his athleticism. It’s the same with Reed. Marcedes Lewis has had a nice eight-year career and is an excellent blocker, but No. 2 on this list? He has 25 career touchdown catches, but 10 came in one season. The others are proven pass threats. Of course, this list will change once Jimmy Graham's situation is settled with New Orleans.
The Philadelphia Eagles need a backup quarterback. Mark Sanchez needs a new place to restart his career.

With ESPN Insider Chris Mortenson reporting Sanchez is expected to sign with the Eagles, it brings together two sides filling a major need.

Sanchez
Nick Foles is without question the Eagles' starter. He threw 27 touchdown passes and had just two interceptions while compiling an 8-2 record in 2013. But with Michael Vick off to the New York Jets and Matt Barkley an unknown, coach Chip Kelly is dipping into the Pac-12 quarterbacks again.

Kelly was Oregon's offensive coordinator when Sanchez played at Southern Cal.

We will now get to see if he can revitalize Sanchez.

Things started so well for Sanchez with the Jets. He helped New York and Rex Ryan to two straight AFC Championship Games, losing to Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, but he never made the next step in his career.

His best statistical year came in 2011, when he threw for 3,474 yards with 26 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, but the Jets lost their final three games and that was the end of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

Tony Sparano did not help Sanchez in 2012. A shoulder injury kept Sanchez out last year.

Provided the shoulder checks out, Sanchez will become the backup to Foles.

Kelly's first order of business is lifting Sanchez's accuracy. He is a 55.1 percent passer for his career. The best he has had in his career is 56.7 percent. In today's NFL with the rules the way they are, quarterbacks must complete about 65 percent to be effective.

With the Eagles, Sanchez would have better tools around him, especially on the offensive line. He could have DeSean Jackson at wide receiver, at least for a minute. He would have Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper to go with Brent Celek and Zach Ertz at tight end. And of course he would have LeSean McCoy.

He would also have Kelly, who has won with different kinds of quarterbacks along his stops at New Hampshire, Oregon and last year with the Eagles.

The Eagles are not the ground-and-pound of the Jets in Sanchez's first two years, but Kelly will run the ball to control the game and his quarterback.

Sanchez would be going to a perfect spot without the pressure to be the Sanch-ise. All he would need to be is a backup, not a savior.
PHILADELPHIA -- Michael Vick talked to reporters Tuesday for the first time since a new Forbes.com poll declared him the “most disliked” active player in the NFL.

Vick
Vick
After talking about practice, potentially starting Sunday against the New York Giants and the progress of his injured hamstring, Vick was asked about the dubious distinction.

“I care nothing about that,” Vick said. “I care nothing about people that dislike me. I care nothing about people who still have ill feelings about me. What matters most to me is the people I do know care about me. That’s something you can never take away from me.”

According to the poll, 53 percent of respondents named Vick as an NFL player they disliked. San Diego linebacker Manti Te’o was second at 48 percent, followed by Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

It has been four years since Vick was released from federal prison, where he served 18 months for charges resulting from a dogfighting ring. Vick was reinstated by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in 2009 and signed with the Eagles that August.

He has not been in any kind of trouble since then. He has gotten a few endorsement deals. Still, his image clearly remains tarnished.

“I don’t feed into all that,” Vick said. “People are entitled to their own opinions, and I respect it. Just let me do what I do, let me be me. As long as I have my freedom, my health and my family, nothing else matters.”

NFC East Top 20: No. 7 Tony Romo

August, 30, 2013
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In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post. And if you want to read any of the other posts that have run since we started this series, you can find them all here, in this link.

No. 7 -- Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys QB

Romo
(Last year: No. 7)

No player in the NFC East stirs more emotion than Romo. Many will consider this ranking too high, shouting things like, "One playoff win!" and "I'm surprised his ranking didn't get intercepted!" etc. Others will consider this ranking too low, citing Romo's excellent and consistent regular-season numbers and a justifiable belief that the negatives too strongly outweigh the positives in too many people's minds. Me, I left him right here where he was last year, at No. 7 on the list of best players in the NFC East. I guess you can sit here and say he should be better. And throwing three interceptions in the division title game against Washington in Week 17 last year certainly didn't help his case. But more than two-thirds of the teams in the league would take Romo over their current quarterback situation, and in the end I think he's a bit of an underappreciated player.

He's gone over 4,000 yards passing in three of the past four seasons, the only exception being the 2010 season in which he missed 10 games due to injury. He has a career completion percentage of 64.7 and hasn't been under 63 in a season since 2008. He has a 95.6 career passer rating, which is higher than those of Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, to name a few. And for all of the talk about interceptions, last year's 19 was an anomaly, tying a career high. He's only thrown more than 14 in a season twice in his career.

The issue, of course, is the winning, or lack thereof. The three quarterbacks named in the previous paragraph have a combined five Super Bowl titles. Romo has none, as everyone knows. If that were not the case, I believe he'd be more freely talked about among the great quarterbacks of his era, since the numbers put him there on their own. Romo's own role in the Cowboys' lack of Super Bowl success during his time as their starting quarterback is often exaggerated, but he has surely played one. Until he and they overcome that problem, he has to rank a notch below that elite level.

The rest of the rankings:

8. Alfred Morris, RB, Washington Redskins
9. Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants
10. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
11. Jason Peters, OT, Philadelphia Eagles
12. Sean Lee, LB, Cowboys
13. Trent Williams, OT, Redskins
14. Evan Mathis, OG, Eagles
15. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
16. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
17. Anthony Spencer, DE, Cowboys
18. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
19. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
20. Jason Hatcher, DL, Cowboys
Coming in at No. 13 on Ron Jaworski's annual ranking of NFL quarterbacks is the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III. Here's what Jaws had to say about RG III on SportsCenter on Wednesday morning:
“It’s rare when I evaluate rookies so highly. I believe in performance over time. But in the case of Robert Griffin III, his individual play and his overall impact was so extraordinary, that he comes in at No. 13 on my quarterback big board.

Griffin
“It began the opening game of the season against the Saints. You know what I loved about this play? RG III’s total awareness of what happened. Listen to him on the sideline. Let’s break the play down and explain what RG III was talking about. Here’s the play fake, and here’s the blitzing safety. There’s Niles Paul, the hot receiver. And there’s the linebacker RG III was talking about covering Paul. At that point, the defense won. That’s a remarkable reaction for a quarterback on his 12th play.

“RG III and the Redskins played offense differently than we had seen in the NFL. Their foundation was the option. RG III led all quarterbacks in rushing with over 800 yards. Often, it was the option. Other times, it was just pure speed. The key of course was the effectiveness of the passing game off the option. Look at the impact of the read-option on the safety. His eyes are focused in the backfield, with no awareness of Aldrick Robinson on the deep post right in front of him.

“As spectacular as RG III can be with his legs, it’s his passing ability that gives him a chance to be a very special player. That’s why I have him ranked 13th after just one season. The question is how will the Redskins handle RG III after his major knee injury? Will we see as much read-option? Or will Mike and Kyle Shanahan incorporate more NFL drop-back passing concepts? It will be a delicate balancing act, and I’m very intrigued to see it.”

So, what's interesting to me about this is that the reaction of Redskins fans to the ranking was that it was too low, while Jaws seems to be defending how high a ranking it was for a quarterback coming off his first year. The thing is, through process of elimination, we can determine that Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick all rank in the top 12, ahead of Griffin. (Here's the list through 15, and Jay Cutler was No. 14.) So while it might be rare for Jaws to rank a guy this high after his first year, he appears to have ranked three other guys in the same situation even higher. (And yes, I understand that Kaepernick was not a rookie last season, but he wasn't a starter in 2011, or even in the first part of 2012 for that matter.)

Personally, I'd definitely rank Griffin ahead of Kaepernick and Houston's Matt Schaub, who's apparently also in that top 12 (along with, in some order, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Joe Flacco). And I think you could certainly argue him over Luck or Wilson, though it's no slam-dunk. But then again, you could argue Tony Romo over any of those guys, and Jaws has him 15th. This is one man's opinion, folks, and not only is it one to which he has the right, it's one at which he's arrived after extensive film study and consideration of all of these guys. Easy for fans to pick apart, but he's watching all of them, not just his favorites.

It's also important to note that Griffin is, currently, an injured player. He did not participate in the organized activities of the offseason, and might not be ready for training camp or the start of the season as he continues to recover from the major reconstructive knee surgery he had in January. As upbeat as everyone is about the likelihood of Griffin's recovery, he hasn't yet completed it, and there's no way to know when or if he'll ever be back to full strength. Downgrading him because of the injury is legitimate, as is downgrading him because of the possibility that his playing style and/or the effects of two reconstructions of the same knee in a three-year stretch could make him less effective going forward.

It's tempting to rank Griffin highly because of the greatness we glimpsed in his first season. But in the end, it might be wise to rank him more cautiously until we see it again, and for a longer period of time.

Oh, and a h/t to Twitter follower Ryan Pence (@pencerm) for the "RG XIII" in the headline. He thought of that first.

Brandon Carr is an NFC Player of the Week

December, 19, 2012
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Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr has been named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance in the team's overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. Carr had four solo tackles and three pass breakups and generally had one of his better all-around games in coverage against the Steelers. But it was his overtime interception of Ben Roethlisberger that set up Dan Bailey's chip-shot field goal and won the game for the Cowboys.

It's the second game in a row in which Carr has come up with a significant turnover. His second-quarter interception of Andy Dalton in Week 14 set up a touchdown drive that tied the game at 10-10 at a point when the Cowboys had not done anything offensively. Carr has been inconsistent in his first season in Dallas after signing a $51 million free-agent contract in the offseason to help stabilize the secondary. He appears to be playing better during this critical time at which the Cowboys have won five of six games to move into a first-place tie in the NFC East.

Carr is the first Cowboys player to win an NFC Defensive or Offensive Player of the Week award this season. Punt returner Dwayne Harris was NFC Special Teams Player of the Week in Week 10, and Bailey won that award a week later.

How you feeling? Cowboys-Steelers

December, 16, 2012
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As the Dallas Cowboys prepare to host the Pittsburgh Steelers at 4:25 p.m. ET (3:25 p.m. CT) on Sunday, here's one reason for Cowboys fans to feel good about the game and one reason for concern.

Feeling good: The Steelers don't scare you the way they used to. They've lost three of their past four games, including last week's clunker against San Diego, and while Ben Roethlisberger is back from injury and presumably getting healthier by the week, the Steelers have issues at running back and on defense, where cornerback Ike Taylor is injured and won't play. If Philip Rivers and Danario Alexander were able to light up the Pittsburgh secondary last Sunday, there's no reason to think that Tony Romo and Dez Bryant can't do the same -- assuming Bryant can catch with that broken left index finger.

Cause for concern: The Cowboys' defense is in tatters. It appears cornerback Morris Claiborne will miss the game due to his concussion. And while they can fill in with Mike Jenkins and the pleasantly surprising Sterling Moore, it just eats away further at their depth on that side of the ball. They're already playing without their two starting inside linebackers, a starting safety and two starting defensive linemen. Claiborne has been improving as the season's gone along, and without him covering receivers on the back end it'll be very important for the Cowboys' pass rush to get to Roethlisberger and sack him.

Defenses will decide the NFC East

December, 13, 2012
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Robert Griffin IIIBrad Penner/US PresswireNew York's title hopes may depend on Jason Pierre-Paul and a Giants pass rush that has been underwhelming this season.

Can the New York Giants' pass rush perk up and help a Big Blue defense that held the Falcons offense scoreless during the playoffs last season repeat that performance Sunday in Atlanta?

Can the two men the Dallas Cowboys brought in to be shutdown cornerbacks keep the Steelers receivers covered while Ben Roethlisberger scrambles to keep plays alive?

Can the Washington Redskins scheme, adjust and work around their defensive personnel shortages for another week, keeping Trent Richardson in check and daring Brandon Weeden to beat them in Cleveland?

These are the key storylines Sunday as the NFC East race spins into its final weeks. Amend them with different opponents, and they are likely to remain the key storylines in this division the rest of the way. Although the quarterbacks get all the attention in this division and statistically there's not a top-10 defense in the bunch, the team that plays the best defense in these final three games is the one most likely to emerge with the division title.

The NFC East race is a jumble. The defending champion Giants hold a one-game lead, but they have road games the next two weeks in Atlanta and Baltimore and are far from assured of winning out. The Falcons and Ravens are a combined 11-1 at home this season and 65-11 the past five. Sure, New York is a defending Super Bowl champion that has shown it can win anywhere, but there's not a team out there that could safely assume it would go 2-0 in those games. The Giants are going to have to play the way they played in January, not the way they've played for most of the past month and a half, if they're going to keep control of the division. To do that, they need to be more ferocious on defense.

The Giants have 31 sacks -- tied for 12th most in the league. Jason Pierre-Paul leads them with 6.5. Osi Umenyiora has six. Justin Tuck has only three.

The numbers are fine, but they're not Giants numbers. This is a pass rush that took out Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady en route to its second Super Bowl title in five years. Unless someone gets more than one sack a game the rest of the way, they're going to finish the regular season without anyone in double figures. That doesn't compute, and it has as much to do with why the Giants haven't already put away this division as anything.

It's possible that seeing Ryan and the Falcons will rekindle memories of how dominant they were up front 11 months ago, and if that's the case, the Giants could be the team that gets on the defensive run that gives them the division title.

The Cowboys sit one game back of the Giants, tied with the Redskins for second place. Statistically fine for much of the season, the defense has endured a brutal rash of injuries. Both starting inside linebackers, a starting safety, a starting defensive lineman and their nickel cornerback are on injured reserve. This week, star pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware (elbow) and starting cornerback Morris Claiborne (concussion) have already missed practice. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff remains in doubt, and his backup, Josh Brent, is out because of his well-publicized issues. The Cowboys are running short of players on defense, which could take them right out of this picture if it continues.

But they've made it this far in spite of their deficiencies. They've won four of their past five games. Running back DeMarco Murray is back in the fold, red-hot wide receiver Dez Bryant apparently is determined to play in spite of a broken finger, and the offense is humming.

The defense has to hold it together, and the key is in that secondary. Ware and Anthony Spencer are playing well at outside linebacker, and the defensive line is average and going to stay that way. The defense is counting on Claiborne and fellow corner Brandon Carr to shut down receivers, especially in a game such as this Sunday's against Pittsburgh's receivers. If Claiborne can't go, the responsibility falls to Sterling Moore, who has looked good in his short time in Dallas.

Carr and Claiborne have been occasionally brilliant but generally inconsistent in coverage this season. The price the Cowboys paid for Carr in free-agent money and for Claiborne in draft picks says they're big-time talents who need to play that way. If they can shut down opposing receivers the next three weeks, the Cowboys' chances of coming from behind and stealing this division are a lot better.

In Washington, all eyes are on rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, who has a knee injury and may not play Sunday in Cleveland.

But the Redskins aren't really worried about their offense. They can run the ball with Alfred Morris, Pierre Garcon can get open down the field for backup Kirk Cousins, and they can score enough points.

Defense has been the Redskins' issue all season. They rank 28th in total defense and 31st against the pass. A secondary that didn't look all that great to begin with is now missing two starting safeties and a starting cornerback. The defense is also missing its best pass-rusher, Brian Orakpo, and starting defensive lineman Adam Carriker. It has been a struggle.

Yet the Redskins, which have managed to win their past four games to move within a game of the Giants, have a real chance. They have looked bad on defense for long stretches during the streak -- the second half against Dallas on Thanksgiving, the first half against Baltimore last week -- but they've managed to hold on. Coordinator Jim Haslett is doing an excellent job of changing up the game plan from week to week and half to half to maximize any advantage he can find. Outside linebacker Rob Jackson can be a disruptive pass-rusher for a half. DeAngelo Hall can be a decent cover corner for a couple of drives.

They mix, match and patch it together, and so far it's not falling apart. The key will be for the Redskins to keep walking that tightrope, and if they can do it for three more games, they absolutely have a chance.

So if you're trying to make sense of this NFC East race as it hits the home stretch, look not to the big-name quarterbacks and receivers but instead to the defenses. If one of these three teams can do something on defense it hasn't been able to do so far, that could make enough of a difference to decide the division.
Last year, when the Dallas Cowboys finished 1-4 and lost the NFC East to the New York Giants, blame fell on the defense. They couldn't stop anybody. They blew fourth-quarter leads in key games against the Cardinals and Giants. Opposing fullbacks hurdled their cornerbacks with abandon. It was ugly.

Fast-forward a year, and the Cowboys sit at 6-6, one game out of a playoff spot with four games left on the schedule. And as Calvin Watkins writes, the key to whether they can cash in this opportunity is once again the defense:
If things don't improve for the defense, the season could end before New Year's Day. Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals are next, followed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, quite possibly with Ben Roethlisberger back in action. Then comes Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, and finally Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins help close the season.

You could say these are winnable games for the Cowboys. If the offense continues to produce points, like the 38 it did Sunday against the Eagles, you might believe that group can carry a few games late.But you can't believe in a defense that's given up eight touchdown drives to rookie quarterbacks the last two weeks.

I don't think this year's issues on the Cowboys' defense are the same as last year's. This year's defense has been very good for stretches, but has turned leaky in recent weeks. Because of injuries, it is playing without its two starting inside linebackers, one of its starting safeties, its nickel cornerback and two of its starting defensive linemen. Last year's defense was, for the most part, healthy in December. It just stunk.

The question for the Cowboys all season, to me, has been whether they were deep enough to last. There is big-time talent in certain places on the roster, but there is not, throughout the roster, the sort of depth of talent a team needs to make it through a season as a championship contender. I think the people who run and build the team know that, and that they perceive themselves in the middle of a building project set to continue in the coming offseason.

Yet they do stand a real chance, with four games to go, of reaching this year's playoffs. And so in spite of the injuries and any other issues they may be having, it's on coach Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to find a way to fire up the defense to maximize what it has in pursuit of that chance. The Cowboys may not have enough to handle that remaining schedule. And if they don't, a third straight season without a playoff game can't be a total surprise. But if they can overcome their problems, play big over the final four games and swipe one of those spots... well, that'd be something on which to build, now wouldn't it?

RG3, Luck, Wilson: Debating rookie QBs

November, 15, 2012
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Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell WilsonUS PresswireHow does the QB class of 2012 stack up against 1983 and 2004?
So I got to talking Wednesday with AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky and NFC West blogger Mike Sando about rookie quarterbacks and how they're judged. It started with Paul and Mike talking about the proper statistical perspective in which to view the Colts' Andrew Luck and the Seahawks' Russell Wilson, and they were kind enough to rope me into the discussion to include the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III. Not sure we were trying to reach any real conclusion here, just discuss the ways in which these guys are being evaluated against each other in terms of who's the best this year and who might be the best in years to come. Here's a transcript of our discussion. Hope you enjoy:

SANDO: Wilson has gotten less attention as he's played better, it seems to me. There was quite a bit of buzz around him heading into the season simply because people following along from afar expected Matt Flynn to win the job. The idea that a head coach would willingly go with a 5-foot-10 rookie third-round draft choice over a $19 million free agent made waves. Wilson didn't play all that well early in the season, however. Part of that was because Pete Carroll pulled back the reins on the offense in an attempt to bring along Wilson slowly. That wasn't really anticipated given how effusive Carroll had been in his praise for Wilson's readiness to perform right now, not just in the future. Meanwhile, RG3 was sensational out of the gates. The Wilson buzz went away. I think that's going to change as Seattle continues to make a playoff push and Wilson continues to become a bigger part of the reason why.

KUHARSKY: Critics who want to say Luck is over-hyped are, in my opinion, off their rocker. You look at his completion percentage, you look at his passer rating. I'll watch him play. He's remarkable for a rookie. Heck, he's remarkable for a third-year guy. He's got characteristics of both Peyton Manning (anticipation, smarts, understanding) and Ben Roethlisberger (ability to extend plays or to stand in and make throws while getting hit) as well as enough speed to be a constant threat to pull it down and run for a first down. I understand RG3 is more explosive. But I'm a pocket passer guy. And if I am choosing a young pocket passer to build a team around, I have no question about who it would be right now. It would be Luck. His team isn't very good, and he's got it positioned as a front-runner for a playoff berth. Don't just look at his stats, look at his play. He's worthy of all the talk/ hype/ praise/ applause/ etc.

GRAZIANO: Nobody got attention like Griffin got it in September, when he was being talked about as an MVP candidate and not just Rookie of the Year. In truth, he's been dazzling, and has handled every situation, in-game and off-field, as well as you could ask a rookie to handle it. But if the bloom is coming off, it's understandable. The Redskins have lost three games in a row, and Griffin's two most recent games are the only ones this year in which his completion percentage has been under 60. I think the problem is more about the group around him than it is about the league figuring him out. The Redskins' offense simply may have reached the limit of what it can do in this particular season, given the injuries to top passing-game playmakers Pierre Garcon and Fred Davis. The plan for Griffin is not to run college-style option stuff his whole career, but at this point the Redskins' offense is reaching a point from which it can't evolve much further until it has its top receiving threats back. In the meantime, Griffin is stuck throwing to secondary receivers who drop too many passes, or scrambling so much that it puts his health at risk. We may have seen the best of Griffin for 2012, but things are likely to get better in 2013 and beyond once they improve the team around him.

KUHARSKY: They are all great stories. And heck, Ryan Tannehill and even Brandon Weeden have done some good things, too. If we're not entering an era of quick impact quarterbacking from newcomers, then a lot of teams with high draft picks in the near future are going to be disappointed. I know Cold, Hard, Football Facts took me apart for my praise of Luck. But nowhere in that have I suggested anyone else unworthy of his fair share of respect. Luck's in a unique situation. The Colts were horrific last year, it's a new regime that cut a bunch of people and is eating a lot of dead money. It's a thin roster. It found a purpose in rallying to win for Chuck Pagano after his leukemia diagnosis, and while the Seahawks are a maybe and the Redskins are a no, the Colts are very much a probably for the playoffs. I'm far more interested in that than nitpicking completion percentage for a guy who hardly ever throws a checkdown pass.

GRAZIANO: That's the thing, Paul. Are we analyzing what these guys are right now, as compared to the top QBs in the league? Or are we talking about what they've shown in terms of what they can be? All of these rookies have obvious areas in which they can improve, but at least in the case of the guys who were picked 1 and 2 in the draft, I think we're talking about rare talents with incredibly high ceilings. Whether Griffin has been asked/required to throw downfield as much this year as he'd eventually like to seems immaterial to me, especially with the Redskins not yet ready to contend. He's shown presence in the huddle. He's shown an ability to lead a game-winning drive. He's made good decisions. Much of what he's accomplished is tied to his remarkable all-around athleticism and speed, sure, but he hasn't relied exclusively on that the way, say, a young Michael Vick or Jeff George might have. Griffin's shown a desire and an ability to treat the quarterback position as a craft to be honed, and a willingness to work on the minuscule detail aspects of it. That speaks to where he's headed as much as anything he's done on the field does.

SANDO: I'm with Paul in looking beyond passer rating with Luck in particular. He ranks among the NFL leaders in attempted passes. He's carrying that offense. The Colts are also asking him to make more difficult throws. His passes travel 10.3 yards past the line of scrimmage on average. That leads the league and it's not even close. We're not talking about a team dinking and dunking to protect its rookie passer. Luck is doing so much more than that. I think this is a perfect test case for our Total QBR metric. It's got Luck trailing only Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan when it comes to doing the things quarterbacks must do to help their teams win. Those five rushing touchdowns he has aren't showing up in the passer rating stat, to cite just one example. It's why I've listed Luck in the last couple MVP Watch items. The Seahawks did not ask Wilson to do nearly as much early in the season. They've asked him to do more in recent weeks and Wilson has responded. He's improving quickly and ranks among the NFL's top seven in QBR and top five in passer rating since Week 6. Wilson has a real chance to finish this season as the best rookie quarterback in the league.

KUHARSKY: And there we have the crux of the question, I believe -- what would make him the best? Passer rating? QBR? Team success? I love Wilson and his story. I hope he opens doors for others who don't look the part. But Luck looks the part and fits it too, and I'm not downgrading him for it. For what's left of this season, of the rookie quarterbacks, he's the one I'd take, without question. For what's left of their careers, he's the one I'd take, without question. And my picking him is all about what he has, not about anything the other guys don't. And he should be the choice. He was the top pick for a reason.

GRAZIANO: I think you're right, Paul. I spoke with Mike Shanahan last week, and as much as he raves about his guy, he still insists he'd have been thrilled with Luck and that the whole point this year was to get one of the first two picks because you were looking at two transcendent talents. Stats? RG3 is ninth in passer rating, 10th in QBR, sixth in Pro Football Focus' rankings (eighth as a passer and second, behind only Luck, as a running QB). There's not a rating system that doesn't love him, and again, he's done this without the wide receiver they signed to be his top target and big-play guy. If Griffin has to "draft" Luck his whole career and be a close No. 2, I imagine he could do worse. But it appears he's got the stuff he needs to keep it a good debate for years to come. And while it may be a matter of taste, when this year ends, you're going to be able to make the case for Griffin as the top rookie quarterback.

SANDO: Most never expected Wilson to be part of this discussion. Even the Seahawks weren't sure how much his lack of height would limit him. Wilson has demonstrated an ability to find and create throwing lanes. Jared Allen alluded to this before his Minnesota Vikings watched Wilson toss three first-half touchdown passes against them. If the height isn't going to be a negative, then Wilson can absolutely become an elite quarterback. He has the arm and the professional baseball pedigree to prove it. He has big hands, not just for his size, but overall (10 1/4 inches, fourth-biggest at the 2012 combine and bigger than Luck's or Griffin's hands). His work ethic led Carroll to joke about how Wilson decided to take some time off -- maybe three hours, he said -- during the bye week. The results have certainly been positive on the field. From everything I've seen, Wilson will be part of this conversation in the future.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants haven't been able to get much going in the first half today, but the Pittsburgh Steelers have been offering them a lot of help. Penalties and turnovers have been the story as the Giants take a 14-10 lead into halftime.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning is 4-for-12 for 60 yards and an interception so far in the game, but the Giants have picked up a total of 87 yards on two Steelers pass interference penalties. They were unable to convert the second into points as Lawrence Tynes' 51-yard field goal attempt in the half's final minute fell short, but the first one -- a 41-yarder on the Giants' first drive of the second quarter -- helped move the Giants into Steelers territory and set up their first touchdown.

That touchdown was a controversial one, due to another Steelers penalty in the end zone. On third-and-goal from the two-yard line, Manning threw an incomplete pass. But on the play, Steelers safety Ryan Clark was called for a personal foul for a blow to the head of Giants receiver Victor Cruz. Replays showed that Clark did not hit Cruz in the head, and the Giants later announced that Cruz was probable to return (as he did) with a rib injury. Andre Brown ran the ball in for the touchdown after the call on Clark.

On the Steelers' ensuing drive, Giants linebacker Michael Boley picked up a Ben Roethlisberger fumble and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown. Replays showed that Roethlisberger's arm was moving forward when he lost the ball, indicating that it was actually an incomplete pass. But after reviewing the play, the officials determined that the ball was moving in Roethlisberger's hand before his arm started forward, and therefore the play remained as called.

The Steelers' touchdown came after Manning's interception, so each team has helped the other out. But the Steelers have already rushed for 98 yards on 17 carries, gashing the Giants' defense up the middle with Isaac Redman. And if the Giants don't tighten things up on offense and defense, the second half may not go their way to the extent that the first half did.

How you feeling? Giants-Steelers

November, 4, 2012
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As the New York Giants prepare to host the Pittsburgh Steelers at 4:25 p.m. here at MetLife Stadium, here's one reason for Giants fans to feel good and one reason for concern.

Feeling good: The Steelers are a much tougher team at home and are just 1-3 on the road this year. They're also banged-up at running back, with Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Dwyer unlikely to play due to injuries and Isaac Redman in line to start. At full strength and at home, the Steelers would be a threat to beat the Giants with a clock-killing, ball-control type of offense. And they'll still try to do that with Ben Roethlisberger and a short passing game that could take some of the starch out of the Giants' pass rush. But being on the road and undermanned will affect the Steelers' ability to run the kind of offensive game plan they want to run, and the Giants should be able to outscore them.

Cause for concern: On defense, the Giants rely on the ability of their front four to pressure and sack the quarterback. Roethlisberger, who's extremely mobile and adept at extending plays inside and outside the pocket, is very difficult to sack. Pittsburgh has allowed just 14 sacks so far this season, and a lot of that success is because of how slippery Roethlisberger can be behind the line while still keeping his eyes downfield to try to make a play. The Giants' defense faces one of its toughest and most unusual tests of the season in Roethlisberger and will have to be judicious in the way they rush the passer.

Final Word: NFC East

November, 2, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 9:

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Paul Frederiksen/US PresswireRobert Griffin III is averaging nearly five yards per carry this season on designed-run plays.
Dual-threat QBs: The Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III has more carries on designed-run plays than any other quarterback in the league this year. According to ESPN Stats & Information's Next Level numbers, Griffin has 41 designed-run plays, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. The Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton is second in the league in designed-run plays for quarterbacks. Carolina is Washington's opponent on Sunday. Newton has 34 designed-run plays this year, averaging 5.4 yards per carry (and outdoing Griffin). Griffin has 29 other rushing attempts, and Newton has 17.

Keep your eye on the ball: The New York Giants lead the NFL this year with 24 takeaways, the most by a team through its first eight games of a season since the 2009 Saints. The Giants this week will host the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have turned the ball over just six times this season, tied with the Houston Texans for the lowest number of turnovers in the league. Something's got to give!

Getting to Big Ben: The Giants have shown major improvement in their four-man pass rush in recent weeks. Over their first five games, they were averaging a sack every 39.3 drop-backs when sending four or fewer pass-rushers. But in their past three games, the Giants are recording a sack every 12.2 drop-backs when sending four or fewer. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is notoriously difficult to sack because he excels at dodging the rush and extending plays, so the Giants may focus more this week on containing him. And if they do so by pressuring him with their front four, as they prefer to do, it will put more pressure on their coverage units to stay with the receivers longer than usual.

Slaying the unbeatens: Sunday night's game in Atlanta features the Dallas Cowboys against the 7-0 Falcons; it will be the fourth game the Cowboys have played since 1991 against an opponent that was 7-0 or better. The Cowboys are 3-0 in those games since '91, though if the Falcons lose they may find a silver lining. Each of those other three teams went on to win the Super Bowl.

Offensive opportunity: The Philadelphia Eagles' offense has been sluggish this year. Behind a struggling offensive line that's missing three starters, quarterback Michael Vick has been sacked or put under duress on 32.5 percent of his drop-backs this year (according to ESPN Stats & Information), the highest percentage in the league. And running back LeSean McCoy has been hit in the backfield on 24.4 percent of his rushing attempts, the highest rate in the league. However, Monday night's game in New Orleans offers the Eagles their best chance of the year to get the offense right. The 2-5 Saints are the first team in NFL history to allow at least 400 yards of offense in seven straight games; plus, they've allowed 3,323 yards, the most ever in the first seven games of an NFL season.

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